On 24 August, Belarus celebrates the anniversary of the national grain harvester building industry: 27 years ago, a decision was taken in a field near the village of Chistye Luzhi, Vetka District to set up production of combine harvesters. Thanks to that fateful decision, Gomselmash can now produce up to 3,000 units of self-propelled grain and forage harvesters per year, 70% of which are exported. As many as 15,000 employees earn an average of Br2,650 per month, and each job at Gomselmash secures five to six jobs in Russia and four to five in Belarus.
In this episode we will tell you how Aleksandr Lukashenko rectified the historical mistake by Adjutant General Aleksandr Zeleny, Minister of State Property of the Russian Empire.
Well, in 1834, American Hiram Moore patented the first grain combined harvester. Early models were drawn by 20-40 horses, mules or oxen. This machine harvested more than 20 hectares at a time. By 1860, the harvester began its victorious march around American farms.
Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, on 18 November 1868, the Department of Agriculture at the Ministry of State Property of the Russian Empire received an application for a 10-year patent. It was submitted by agronomist Andrei Vlasenko, a native of Mogilev Province, a graduate of the Gorki Agricultural School.
On this occasion, the Zemledelcheskaya Gazeta, a supplement to the St. Petersburg Vedomosti newspaper, wrote: “Vlasenko invented a machine that simultaneously performs the functions of a reaper and a thresher. It replaces manual labor of reapers and flail threshers. Compared to the most commercially successful American reaper McCormick, it reduced grain losses 8 times, which equaled up to 30 poods per dessiatina.”
Andrei Vlasenko substantiated the patent application as follows: "Everyone knows how much labor harvesting and threshing takes and how often these works are fraught with difficulties and losses for the economy, especially in the steppe provinces when grain crops remain unharvested ... After a long search for the best method that would correspond to the purpose, I finally achieved, apparently, the desired result, by arranging such a machine that gathers grain directly in the field. The only operation that is left to do is to separate grain from the chaff."
The unit developed by the Belarusian consisted of a comb for combing and tearing off ears, a threshing drum, bucket-type conveyor belts, a sieve for straw and a tanker for harvested grain. It was an exact prototype of a modern combine harvester with a steering wheel. The harvester was drawn by horses (or pushed to be exact as horses were put behind the machine). It required two or four houses depending on the density of the crops. The machine required two peasants - one at the steering wheel watching grain flowing in the bunker, the other driving the horses and controlling the work of the thresher. For comparison: the American thresher shown at the Vienna World's Fair in 1873 was driven by 24 mules and a crew of 7 workers, with equal productivity.
Vlasenko received a patent for the invention, built four units, and enlisted the support of the agronomic community of tsarist Russia. But it never came to mass production. The Minister of State Property of the Russian Empire issued the following resolution. It read: “The manufacture of a complex machine is beyond the capabilities of our mechanical plants! We bring simpler harvesters and threshers from abroad.”
Believe it or not, the story repeated in 1996.
Why experts had doubts regarding the success of combine harvester production in Belarus
"The president was told about the development of the KZR-10 combine in March 1996 when he was visiting Gomselmash. He was inspecting the harvester engineering division when the former chief designer Shurinov gave him a note. The note laid out the idea to create a combine that would be powered by the existing multipurpose power unit and would be adapted for grain harvesting," Sergei Fedorovich, chief designer of the harvester engineering division at Gomselmash, recalled. "An interdepartmental commission was put together to study the matter. The commission poured cold water on this project. The president had extensive experience of running farms in Mogilev Oblast, he himself operated a grain harvester, was well-versed in this matter and knew how important it was to solve the equipment problem. And he signed off on this project. The first prototype was developed by 1 August. It was tested on the fields of the Uritskoye agricultural company."
On 24 August the president flew by helicopter to Vetka District where he was shown a combine harvester. The harvester's performance was on par with that of the Don 1500 harvester from the Soviet period. Yet, the Agriculture and Food Ministry officials remained skeptical about it. They said that harvesting conditions in Gomel Oblast were just too good and suggested trying the harvester in Vitebsk Oblast. Thus, the president ordered to conduct comparative tests in Vitebsk Oblast where the climate and terrain were tougher. The KZR harvester traveled to Veykhany in Gorodok District.
"The harvesting conditions there were less favorable due to extensive weed populations and high humidity." Sergei Fedorovich said. "The harvester was tested again. It turned out to be comparable with the Don in terms of cleaning and threshing quality. In 1999, after two years of testing, the president signed an order to produce the first batch of 50 combines. It marked the start of mass production of grain harvesters in Belarus.
The president explained his decisions during a working visit to Logoisk District on 25 August 2021: "I proceeded from the fact that we needed something to harvest crops with. But this is not the main thing. The main thing is that we are starting to make our own grain harvesters. Since we couldn't do anything better quickly then, we opted for this. There were no losses. For me this was the most important thing. The harvester removed grain and it was no worse than the GDR harvesters. I operated them and saw that ours did well. Therefore, we made such a decision. I knew that we would learn how to do it. The world is interdependent. You may not know how to do some things today, but tomorrow you will learn. You can copy some things, improve them. Most importantly, I dreamed of our own harvester engineering. And the dream has come true.
It is worth saying that this decision was made after the collapse of the USSR. It was a superpower where the State Planning Committee made all the decisions and every enterprise had a clear-cut specialization. There were huge agricultural engineering companies that produced a certain type of equipment. For example, Rostselmash produced grain harvesters, Gomselmash made forage harvesters. Dons, Nivas, Yeniseis were working the land in Belarus; USA's John Deere and Germany's Klaas machines were also used, but to a lesser extent.
When the USSR ceased to exit, the question arose: how to replace them? By 1996, Rostselmash almost curtailed production. A similar situation was at Krasnoyarsk Combine Harvester Plant. The company in Taganrog started making non-core products. How was Belarus supposed to harvest grain crops?
In addition to that, former Soviet republics started making their own forage harvesting equipment. Hence, they no longer needed this equipment from Gomselmash. Thus, the company started seriously considering switching to grain harvesters. Head of the design bureau Valentin Shurinov worked at a similar design bureau at Rostselmash before coming to Gomel. So he was well-versed in this line of business. He also knew how to launch production. He invited several specialists from Rostselmash. Within three months, the first samples of a new forage harvester based on the Polesie-250 multipurpose power unit and the Polesie-700 self-propelled forage harvester were created.
The whole project was a success, as now Gomselmash is a large holding company with subsidiaries in Belarus and Russia.
What are the main drivers of growth at Gomselmash?
We have been steadily growing for the third year in a row. In 2021, a little more than 2,000 self-propelled combines were produced, in 2022 the output rose to 2,500. This year, we plan to increase the output by 500. Thus, we are set to make 3,000 self-propelled grain harvesters and forage harvesters. The output growth is estimated at 60%. We plan to maintain this pace until the end of the year. Our export growth target is 40%,” Gomselmash Director General Aleksandr Novikov said. We have found new markets and retained our presence in the traditional ones. We keep increasing our presence in Russia as well. We are going to ship some 1,700 vehicles to the Russian Federation. We are about to deliver a certain number of vehicles to the Republic of Zimbabwe. Some 78 Gomselmash self-propelled harvesters are already in operation there. We are also working with Kenya and Burkina Faso. There are about 50 harvesters there as well.
Gomselmash has just celebrated the 18th anniversary of our subsidiary, Bryanskselmash. The production was launched there 18 years ago.
The production area is 25,000 square meters. The company has already introduced all technological processes, such as metal cutting, machining, welding, painting and assembling.In 2022, Bryanskselmash produced 1,200 types of different machinery, including harvesters, seeders, and mulching rotary cultivators. Bryanskselmash is listed among Russia's biggest manufacturing companies. The company expands its production by 25% every year, and we plan to maintain the pace this year. Right now, we are modernizing the production facilities there," the director general said. "Krasnodar is our new project. We opened an assembly plant there in May 2023. As the production of Claas combine harvesters in Krasnodar was stopped, Russia has focused its attention on our products, namely combine harvesters 2124 and a new flagship model of hydrid threshing system - combine harvester GS 810, since highly productive machinery remains in great demand. The task is to ship 100 vehicles there, keeping in mind a certain level of localization."
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The company's order book runs through to the mid-2024. At the Belagro 2023 exhibition, Gomselmash showcased its flagship model - a 530-horsepower GS2124 super combine harvester fitted with a precision farming system. The vehicle was developed in cooperation with the Russian company Cognitive Agro Pilot. Some 90% of component parts and mechanisms are localized. This year plans are in place to produce 200 such cutting-edge harvesters, the operator of which can literally spend his time in the driver's seat drinking coffee and reading morning news.
"In addition to GPS navigation, the technology boasts a computer vision system. This means the harvester sees the field the same way as the operator.
The harvester gets the signal on its on-board computer, responds and makes certain adjustments taking into account various obstacles detected in the field.
The harvester operator needs only to observe the process," Aleksandr Novikov said.
Will AI replace harvester operators in the field
On 3 August the president paid a visit to the Olekshitsy agricultural company in Berestovitsa District to assess the harvester and talk to harvester operators.
President: Have you operated it? Compared to imported machinery, how is this combine harvester?
Harvester operator: Everything is adjustable. Everything is connected to the cab.
President: What about the losses?
Harvester operator: Losses seem to be good. Agronomists have checked them. And my assistant keeps an eye on it, too.
President: So this harvester is good, right?
Harvester operator: It is good. It is hard to get used to it, however. The cutterbar is very long, 9.5 meters.
President: Isn't it powerful?
Harvester operator: It is! A strong machine.
While farmers are testing the super harvester in the fields, Gomselmash is continuously updating and modernizing its production. Milling machine operator Nikolai Kazyukin, honored worker of Gomselmash is a witness of big changes: "The progress is amazing, beyond any comparison with what it used to be like here. I came to work here right after the army service. I was not even in two minds which job to take. I came to Gomselmash right away. A youth Komsomol construction project was launched here in 1982. It was the call of honor for me. I have worked here for 42 years. I am happy with everything here. Salary has been raised twice this year. Working conditions are improving. Equipment is being modernized. Everything is great. Everything is good. The environment at work is friendly. All emerging issues are solved promptly.
This summer, the company has employed student teams which is a good career guidance practice for young people and the enterprise, which plans to continue its active development. By 2026, plans are in place to increase the production volume up to 5,000 self-propelled machines per year, which means that the main issue for the enterprise in the future will be a personnel one, because, as the Gomselmash director general director said, neither today, nor in the foreseeable future, artificial intelligence will be able to replace a human operator either in the field or in the workshop.